Why the Entrepreneur Behind Rent the Runway Decided to Launch Her New Company Through Walmart's Incubator
Last year, Jenny Fleiss left Rent the Runway, a company that allows people to rent designer dresses and accessories, after an eight-year run. She and her co-founder, Jennifer Hyman, built the business partially to solve a pain point they faced at the time: They had a calendar full of events to dress up for and needed a fast and affordable way to manage it.
Now, Fleiss is a mom of three who doesn’t have quite as many formal events to go to, but her schedule is more packed than ever. She dreamt of a tool that would help her manage her to-do list from anywhere -- even in the middle of a meeting. When she got the opportunity to join Walmart’s Store No. 8 incubator, which opened its doors last year, she decided to seize the opportunity to build her next venture from within the nation’s largest retailer.
Today, her new company, Jetblack, comes out of stealth after a year in beta. It’s a text message-based, invite-only, $50-per-month concierge shopping service. From the outset, it’s powered by humans and chatbots working in tandem to get busy people in urban areas (New York to start) virtually any item (with the exception of anything refrigerated, frozen or alcoholic) in a matter of hours.
Fleiss left Rent the Runway, which she describes as leaving her “first-born child,” to co-found Jetblack. She says she was excited about “the chance to go back to the early stages” of building a company. “As masochistic as it is, I really missed that. I think that’s where I best use my skillset.”
Her co-founder is Marc Lore, who founded defunct baby products retailer Diapers.com as well as ecommerce platform Jet.com, which Walmart bought for $3 billion in August 2016. Lore came up with the idea, which resonated with Fleiss personally. She built the team.
“I was really excited to be at Walmart at this moment in time,” Fleiss says of her decision to be a part of the incubator. “It's the age of the giants -- Walmart, Amazon and other large players -- battling it out to figure out how the trends of ecommerce will shape our world.”
Walmart saw the Jet acquisition as just the beginning of its efforts to innovate and forge the future of retail, Fleiss explains.
“Every company in the incubator focuses on a different trend in retail and how that will change consumers’ lives in the next five years and beyond,” she says, noting that Jetblack is among five companies within Store No. 8.
Jetblack’s focus is “conversational commerce,” which translates to the ability to shop via a text message conversation and, down the road as AI improves, voice recognition technology. But because it’s a concierge service, Fleiss expects that there will likely “always be an element of personal supervision and touch,” even as it gets predictive about when it’s time for you to re-order paper towels, for instance.
For the past six months, Jetblack has developed its service with a test group of users and has identified three common use cases. The first is the “mental brain dump,” which allows people to text Jetblack when they remember they need, say, more Swiffer fluid for when the housekeeper comes the following day. The second is “recommendations” for purchases, to cut down on time spent reading reviews. Finally, there’s “gifting.” Users can simply explain, “I need a birthday gift for a 5-year-old girl who likes puzzles. The party is next Sunday,” and Jetblack’s assistants will make it happen, gift wrap and all.
Human personal assistants can consult Jetblack’s databases, answer customer questions and surface information about their past preferences to find a match. Focus group of “momfidantes,” whom Fleiss describes as “influencer, in-the-know moms” and “your cooler sister-in-law,” have helped with the research process. Jetblack even offers home visits to get the low-down on the brands and aesthetic a new member prefers. Users can also send photos in place of a screening session, or grant Jetblack access to view their private social media accounts.
In the beta phase, the average member ordered more than 10 items per week, and two-thirds of members engaged with the service weekly. Jetblack offers free delivery and batches items ordered on the same day. For now, it delivers via courier and bike messengers, but in the future, as it expands across the country, Fleiss says she anticipates it could have its own delivery vehicles.
Jetblack doesn’t just draw from Walmart’s inventory -- if someone wants a Givenchy bag, Jetblack dispatches someone to buy one from the Givenchy store and deliver it to the member. That said, Fleiss acknowledges that Jetblack has a “competitive advantage” being a part of the Walmart family, given the store’s large brick-and-mortar and inventory footprint for the household consumables that make up most of what people order.
Part of Fleiss’s role within Store No. 8 has also been to pave the way for her fellow startups in the incubator, documenting her process and providing resources for the next companies that will come through. In some cases, she’s helped to hire the CEOs of the other companies.
“All Fortune 100 companies need to find ways to innovate,” Fleiss says. “Starting to create examples of how that model can work is pretty cool, but it does take some time.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story listed an outdated monthly membership price for Jetblack.